Why I'm proud of Nick Clegg's stance on drug law

Nick Clegg: "treatment not punishment"
Back in 2011, I gave my first speech to Liberal Democrat Conference.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, this was on the need to reform our approach to drugs

I spoke  of the need to abandon the "war on drugs" (which isn't working), to consider drug use more in terms of it being a health issue than a criminal matter, of taking an evidence-based approach and of the wisdom of considering the merits of the Portuguese mode.

I was one of many speakers that day, who helped to ensure a historic vote in favour of re-evaluating the law and decriminalising drug use. I was very proud of our party on that day - in spite of the predictable interpretations from the right-wing press we did the right - and, indeed, sensible - thing. The so-called "war on drugs" and successive government "crackdowns" on drug use have utterly failed - it's time to rethink our strategy, while listening to those who are experts in this field and looking at the examples of our European neighbours.

Today Nick Clegg, with Sir Richard Branson who is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has urged the UK government to begin decriminalising most drugs. Clegg and Branson assert, in a piece published in The Guardian, that “as an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns. If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like.

“The idea of eradicating drugs from the world by waging a war on those who use them is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: it doesn’t reduce drug taking. The Home Office’s own research, commissioned by Liberal Democrats in government and published a few months ago, found there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use. This devastating conclusion means that we are wasting our scarce resources, and on a grand scale.”

Branson, who usually dislikes taking a political position,believes that "the status quo is a colossal con perpetrated on the public by politicians who are too scared to break the taboo." He isn't wrong on that score.

In today's press conference, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

"We know that around one third of British adults have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime. For many, it's something you try when you're young then grow out of. In this country, if you're a young person – say, out at a club with friends – and you get arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs, it's likely you'll end up with a criminal record. That means this stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it's as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even a taxi driver."

Now that's patently sensible stuff. But this hasn't stopped the usual voices of unreason in the right-wing press from turning on Clegg. Equally as predictably, the euphemistically named Centre for Social Justice, has voiced its own opposition with chief executive Christian Guy taking to twitter to announce that "cannabis causes major problems in our poorest communities & ruins lives. The detached liberal elite doesn't get that."

What the detached CSJ doesn't "get" is that we are very aware of the potential risks of cannabis use, but that in itself is no reason to criminalise and ban things. No doubt people's lives are often ruined in other ways - such as people having affairs, through extreme religious indoctrination or taking part in dangerous sports. But none of these things are banned. I note that Guy doesn't apply his logic to either alcohol or gambling, so naturally find his argument somewhat thin. He does, however, make the implied charge that those advocating a more considered approach towards drug use are guilty of naivety and of seeking to worsen the situation of those in poverty.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What Nick Clegg, and others, are hoping to achieve is to free people from a system that enslaves and keeps them in prisons of their past. We don't want the opportunities of what Christian admits are often society's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people to be compromised by having a criminal record for possessing a bit of weed.

A number of charities have also added their names to the list of Clegg's critics - criticisms include the oft-debunked notion that cannabis use leads to "harder" drug use and that there are proven links between "skunk" use and first episode psychosis. However, what these voices fail to appreciate is that use of both harder drugs and stronger forms of cannabis are themselves a product of prohibition. So long as the black market exists it is logical that stronger, higher yielding versions of products are sought. Legalise cannabis, and it will be much easier to control the strength (and safety) of substance being used - reducing the health risks in the process.

This naturally applies to all other drugs, too.

The positive thing is that, with the Liberal Democrats making the right noises, opposition is tending to come from the same obvious outlets: the Conservative Party, the Daily Mail, and the CSJ. It is they who are refusing to follow the lead of the evidence on this matter, not Nick Clegg. Fortunately, the rest of the mainstream media are less overtly hostile and the very fact that such a well-known figure from the business world as Richard Branson is sharing a platform with the Deputy Prime Minister shows how far public opinion has shifted.

The Sun also turns on Nick Clegg, but has surprisingly little negative to say about the policy itself, preferring to ridicule on the basis of poll ratings instead. It seems that it, too, has given up on the "war on drugs".

While no other party has been quite as bold as the Liberal Democrats in advocating a fresh approach to drugs, the attitudes of the SNP and Labour are significantly more open to new possibilities. It is not the Liberal Democrats who are isolated on this front, but the reactionaries within the Conservative Party who vainly believe the "war on drugs" is somehow faring better than the "war on terror". The steadfast refusal to accept certain realities is tantamount not only to a national embarrassment but of a wilful determination to prevent some of our most vulnerable citizens suffering from the stigma, marginalisation and deprivation of opportunity that a criminal record represents.

The Liberal Democrats have today confirmed that our election manifesto will commit to ending the use of imprisonment for possession for personal use, allowing for cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal use, making the Department of Health rather than the Home Office responsible for drug policy, and adopting an approach similar to Portugal's to facilitate treatment rather than punishment. We have also committed to enforcing tough penalties for those who manufacture or deal in illegal drugs.

Nick Clegg today, in spite of the hostility from some quarters, made a speech in which he said:

“Drugs reform, like prison reform, is one of those issues that political parties always talk big about in opposition, only to fall silent and do nothing in Government. Not the Liberal Democrats...We believe the time for action on drugs reform is now.

“The 'War on Drugs' hasn't worked. Despite the decades of tough talking and billions spent in waging this war, the global drug problem and the criminal markets that underpin it remain all but untouched by our enforcement efforts.

“I’m incredibly frustrated that, after five years in Coalition, we cannot take our work to its logical conclusion – just because the Tories are scared of being branded soft on drugs. It’s time [for] the world has moved on; reform is no longer a taboo subject and voters expect politicians to deliver results based on solid evidence, not overblown rhetoric.

“If you’re anti-drugs, as I am, then you have a responsibility to look at the evidence of what actually works to reduce drug harm. We need to get a grip on this problem. So, if you’re anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform...politicians are letting down the victims of the drugs trade by failing to engage with the evidence.

“Talking tough while acting weak may be tempting, but it no longer fools anyone.  It is time to commit to a radically smarter approach to tackle this problem head-on.

“The first step is to recognise that drug use is primarily a health issue. [Secondly] handing out criminal records to users does nothing to reduce overall levels of drugs use. [Currently] a stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it’s as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even taxi-driver. We need to put an end to this ludicrous situation. Our focus should be on getting them the help they need, not punishment, so they can go on to realise their ambitions and make a positive contribution to society.

“The time for change has come. We need political leaders to let go of the same old, safe language, to end the war on drugs and, instead, use their power to implement evidence-based policies that work.

“That’s how we save lives. It’s how we punish the pushers, not the users and the victims of drugs. It’s how we stop the violence, reduce addiction and secure the fairer, more peaceful and prosperous world we want.”

I perhaps don't say it too often, but today I'm immensely proud to admit that I agree with Nick.


Unknown said…
Always thought that legalising was the only option really. That way the drug could at least be clean, not cut with some indescribable rubbish. Legalising would also put the criminals out of business, well at least with drugs.